Lessons from the Street: Capacity Building and Replication
4. Technical Assistance Inputs
Over the ten years of trial and error reported here, the Foundation found that cost-effective capacity building technical assistance and training inputs included: careful site selection, team-based intervention, needs assessment and workplan development, group training and technical assistance, on-site and other individualized training and technical assistance, and direct provision of services and resources as needed.1 Consider each input:
Careful Site Selection
We found that technical assistance can be most effective at a point in time after an organization has survived birth and early development -- and is at a "pre-takeoff" point, on the cusp of becoming a model if it can enhance its capacity. Such groups typically were three to five years old, had budgets in the $150K and $600K range and had at least four staff members, including an executive director and a support staff person. The staff were able and willing to receive assistance. The groups had low staff turnover, and there was evidence that their services were being utilized by persons in need and other constituents.
Newer organizations with smaller staffs (sometimes just one person) often were overwhelmed by the details of incorporation and fundraising, with little time available for other organizational and staff work. They could not absorb all that was needed and thought they didn't have the time. They felt out of place in sessions with more mature groups. Although we increasingly deferred from engaging such organizations, they did respond to one-on-one coaching by technical assistance mentors and were helped when the Foundation wrote grant proposals for them.
Because so many nonprofit groups around the nation are in need of assistance and because technical assistance resources are so limited, we concluded that groups that have passed a certain threshold usually should not be included in technical assistance initiatives -- simply because they are stronger than other groups. Several groups we worked with were "mature" organizations with large budgets ($1M in some cases). Although many reported that they benefitted from Foundation assistance, they did not need help as much as others. We recommend that post-takeoff agencies with budgets above $600,000 usually not be selected, although flexibility should be maintained when there is a clear area of need and strong desire locally to engage in technical assistance.
Founder organizations (so-called "mom-and-pop" groups) can be difficult technical assistance recipients, we found. These are groups whose founders are the current executive directors or who continue to have final decision-making authority. The agency heads have accomplished a great deal with little to no outside capacity building assistance. Inventive and resourceful, these visionaries have performed numerous roles in their fledgling organizations, and it can be difficult for them to take advice from "outsiders" or implement changes with whom they do not agree. Progress can be stymied when founders fail to confer authority to other staff members within the organization to implement technical assistance recommendations.
Needs Assessment and Workplan Development
Table 1 illustrates the variety of needs that were articulated during
needs assessments for a cohort of sites that received Foundation technical
assistance. For each group, technical assistance needs are ranked by order
of priority, as perceived by the organization's staff in consultation with
the Foundation. The Foundation supplied technical assistance for as many
of the priorities as was financially feasible. As Table 1 shows, the number
of Foundation staff members and consultants whose areas of expertise we
needed at any one site ranged from two to nine.
Table 1: Technical Assistance Priories Ranked
After the needs assessment, the Foundation facilitated a process in which the staff, board members and community members generated a written workplan. The workplan identifies tasks, time frames and personnel needed to carry out the technical assistance. The Foundation has found that at least eighteen months of assistance usually is needed to show results, and that the optimal time is thirty-six months. The workplan has clear milestones, so the technical assisters can, month by month, make adjustments if work is off course.
In the process of undertaking a needs assessment and formulating a workplan, we concluded that it was not appropriate for the Foundation to simply promise to do what an organization perceived was necessary. Many groups did not know, or entirely know, what was needed. Often, they did not know how to ask the right questions. For example, some executive directors had no sense of time management or of delegation. Diplomatically, we had to point out such blind spots. As a result, we concluded that it was necessary to walk a fine line -- responding to needs as they "bubbled up" from the organization and community, but also providing some top down guidance on how to improve management, based on our experience. These simultaneous bubble up and top down principles of assistance and training were not impossible to achieve. But they did require considerable work and sensitivity.
During workplan development, grassroots organizations often had difficulty distinguishing between Foundation technical assistance inputs; consequent improvements in their skills, knowledge and action; and consequent measurable outcomes -- as summarized in Figure 2 (Chapter 3). For example, if an organization wanted to improve fundraising, the Foundation's technical assistance might be a group workshop followed by one-on-one tutoring on-site by a Foundation expert on the subject. The planned consequent action by the nonprofit organization might have included the submission of a higher quality grant proposal than before the assistance. The planned outcome here would be more funds raised.
At every opportunity, the Foundation tried to impress upon sites that new action taken by the nonprofit organization as a result of Foundation technical assistance was not the measure of success. Rather, the measure was a positive outcome as a result of the action. For example, more and higher quality proposals meant nothing if they didn't lead to more money raised. Yet, to many persons who we trained, higher quality proposals were an end in themselves -- not the potential means to the end of more funds actually raised. We concluded on the need for reinforced training by the Foundation that, we hoped, eventually would lead to more nonprofit staff who understood the difference between actions and outcomes.
Once a workplan was developed, a cooperative agreement was signed between the grassroots nonprofit organization and the Foundation to implement the workplan. Although this was not a formal contract, the agreement was an attempt to make groups aware that their actions were critical to a successful technical assistance experience. However, it was not clear that such agreements significantly increased the likelihood that a group would fulfill its end of the bargain.
What problems were encountered? Even with the pre-takeoff groups we found to be our best partners, some did not make a serious enough commitment of time and energy. Some entered into the agreement with the expectation that the new connection would lead to more funding (and this did sometimes occur). But some organizations implied in interviews with evaluators that the Eisenhower Foundation, being a foundation, should have provided more resources. However, upfront, the Foundation stated that it was an operating foundation, not an endowed foundation, and that it was supplying only as much technical assistance as the grant covering any cohort of sites would allow.
In some cases, executive directors did not share cooperative agreements with their staffs. Misconstrued staff expectations often were the result. In other cases, the executive directors simply did not realize the amount of effort that was required from them and their staff members. For these groups, we found that enthusiasm and cooperation could diminish. Unreturned phone calls, low or no attendance at group meetings, and uncompleted assignments all provided evidence that scarce technical assistance resources were not cost-beneficial. In still other cases, groups started out with good intentions, but encountered difficulty raising funds that led to budget and staff cuts. The Foundation provided fundraising technical assistance, but sometimes it was insufficient, during the period of assistance, to insure that the group would return to its commitments in the cooperative agreements and workplans.
What can be done to increase the commitment of some organizations over time? We found that more explicit, step-by-step, follow-up instructions by the Foundation could help a group, burdened with many time demands, to carry out a task it had committed to in a workplan. For example, the workplan for one organization included the goal of evaluation. After several conversations with the executive director, the Foundation developed a jargon-free, simple document that provided a list of indicators, potential data collection instruments, and an explanation of the practical ways in which the evaluation data could be used. In another program, as part of staff development there was a need for a ready-made curriculum for a new after-school program director who would arrive on the first day of school--without the benefit of an orientation or planning period. A Foundation consultant developed detailed lesson plans for the entire first month of the program. Pre-development of these materials helped avoid a chaotic environment during those first crucial days.
In addition, we concluded that some commitment problems can be eliminated with more careful site selection and more communication upfront--with all staff, not just executive directors, clear about what the Foundation was and was not able to do, for how long. Improved and repeated training was necessary on inputs versus outcomes. A more formal, legally binding contract should be tried, we decided.
Workshop session ratings of Foundation trainers by participants generally were high.2 Grassroots nonprofit staff members responded best to experiential training curricula based on adult learning theory. The most helpful workshops gave grassroots staff an opportunity to share their experiences, learn information in non-threatening and non-academic work sessions, apply new skills or knowledge in a peer environment and interact with others in an informal setting. Others in the technical assistance field also have reached this conclusion.3
Supplemental group workshops and periodic group conference calls were used, as well. Later, over the decade of Foundation assistance reported on here, each site was requested to secure an e-mail address and each cohort of sites had an e-mail conference page. In the future, we will deploy an enhanced Foundation master web site for electronic conferencing and ongoing information exchange. We also will create a linked community web site for each nonprofit group being assisted.
Individuals who attended workshops, conferences and other off-site training events were required to share their newly-acquired knowledge with their colleagues when they returned. For example, all participants in a self-esteem and management accountability workshop were asked to develop a training-of-trainers follow-up plan that included specific dates for in-service training, expected participants and goals for each day of training. Persons attending other events also were required to write a follow-up memo to the Eisenhower Foundation explaining what they had learned, how the information would help them and when they planned to share the information with other staff.
On Site Technical Assistance
In most cases, Eisenhower Foundation staff were the lead technical assistance providers for all long-term, on-site work. Technical assistance by consultants was done under the direction of the Eisenhower Foundation capacity building director for any one cohort of groups. The on-site work of consultants typically was more short term. For example, frontline staff of one organization participated in a two-day training event on case management. A local consultant was engaged to follow up with the group and to determine whether additional help was needed.
Although resources did not always permit, we soon concluded that quarterly on-site visits were essential. Regular contact, we found, was necessary to establish and maintain trust, a key ingredient in success. The first visit should be for the needs assessment and to build rapport. The second visit should restate the now-developed workplan and the timeline. After the visit, technical assisters need to follow up, summarizing ongoing agreements and listing next steps. The third visit should provide hands-on, in-service training for each agency's areas of need. The last visit should review original goals in the workplan, discuss progress, and plan workplan revisions for the next period of technical assistance.
Direct Services and Resources
Grassroots organization staff especially appreciated services and resources that they could use immediately. Local staff thanked us for step-by-step instructions on how to use the information.
In terms of services, the Foundation provided written, computer disk, and video materials to sites. Distribution of some materials was initiated by the Foundation. Other materials responded to requests by the sites. Over ten years of capacity building, hundreds of distributions were made. Sites were especially grateful when the Foundation was able to undertake detail work that saved them time -- like ordering copies of requested materials and mailing them to the groups.
For some cohorts of organizations, the Foundation produced a monthly newsletter. The newsletter was developed on the recommendation of an executive director from a participating organization -- who felt there was a need for regular communication among all sites beyond national cluster workshops and technical assistance activities taking place at individual sites. When used with a cohort of groups, newsletters provided information of direct benefit to staff, and multiple copies were mailed to each site for wide distribution.
Examples of grants made to enhance capacity building were Foundation funding to attend workshops by other technical assisters and funds to hire local consultants for a variety of tasks -- like the design, installation and provision of local staff training for a database on client services.
In the future, resources permitting, we believe more direct grants to sites would be helpful -- in establishing trust, covering administration and staff costs associated with training, encouraging overworked staff to stay with the technical assistance process and providing high priority services.
We discuss this need more in Chapter 6, but here illustrate it with grants for technology. Many grassroots nonprofit groups did not have the technology to operate in the information age. To the extent they owned computers, they were likely to be outdated; even when they were not, many nonprofit staffers were not skilled computer users. In the Foundation's ten years of assistance, we usually did not have funding to meet these needs.
Accordingly, we recommend that technical assistance include funds so that every participating agency receives a grant to purchase up-to-date computers (in the full knowledge that they may be obsolete within two years). The technical assistance should include mandatory training for all staff members in use of basic word processing software, spreadsheets and databases. Each agency should receive a one-year paid subscription to an Internet Service Provider. Staff should receive mandatory training on how to access information from government agencies and from other nonprofits. Funds should be provided to create and maintain with program youth a community web site at each nonprofit assisted.
Internet access is critical because community-based organizations and others working in poor neighborhoods often operate in an information vacuum -- about models that have been proven effective, based on data from scientific evaluations, and that are suitable for replication; about programmatic innovations that could help them improve their management practices and direct service provision; about data collection tools and other instruments already in existence that could be adopted by these programs, saving them from having to "reinvent the wheel"; and about best practices in organizations that could be located in other areas of the country or just across town.
The Eisenhower Foundation is enhancing its web site (www.eisenhowerfoundation.org) to provide such models and best practices, and to link them to other sources of information.
Computer technology not only increases the technological proficiency of nonprofit staff, it also can help to make an organization more efficient. Cases can be managed through a computer database rather than through paper files; organizations can computerize their fundraising efforts and increase access to funds; and nonprofits can download information on federal and state grants directly, instead of waiting for announcements through the mail.
In short, the grassroots nonprofit sector needs to possess the same efficiency-producing technology and administrative systems that prevail in the for-profit private sector.